One of the reasons many people leave churches may be that too many churches place too much emphasis on the importance of human rules and traditions, and not enough emphasis on the key requirement of the Christian life: loving God.
The purpose of church life is to encourage each other and build each other up as we learn to love God and to introduce others to loving relationship with God. Christians who want to focus on loving God and who want to be with other Christians who love God are finding that many churches are not meeting this central need.
Jesus strongly criticized the religious leaders of his day for focusing mainly on rules and losing sight of their primary role which was to enable and encourage others to love God.
You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain. Their teachings are merely human rules.’ (Matthew 15:7-9)
For more than 2,000 years, Christians have been adding human traditions, doctrines, rituals, and rules to Jesus’ teachings. Sometimes we place more emphasis on these traditions and rules than on the importance of loving God. We have become burdened and weighed down by traditions and rules that have nothing to do with loving God, but we find it difficult to even recognize these traditions as being burdens. And if we do not recognize them as burdens, we cannot change them. This weakens our witness and hinders the coming of God’s kingdom.
It gets worse. We do not just burden ourselves with traditions and rules; we burden others with them. Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day, saying:
They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)
If we deliberately promote the traditions of our denomination as rules required by God, then we make them a burden for others and deserve the condemnation Jesus pronounces. But if we even fail to openly identify these traditions as being human, not divine, then we still make them a burden for others and deserve the same condemnation.
God does not want us to be burdened with human traditions. Jesus tells us that those who commit themselves to his service will find rest, and he tells us that the load he requires us to carry is light:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
And Jesus’ beloved disciple, John, said:
For this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome. (1 John 5:3)
We Christians must free ourselves from unnecessary burdens, including our human traditions and rules, and we must be very, very careful not to lay these unnecessary burdens on others.
So why do I say that Christians who are leaving our churches today may be our best hope for tomorrow?
The Christians who are leaving churches can help us in two ways:
- They can develop ways of expressing their love for God which are not hindered by the traditions and rules found in established denominations. Their witness to non-Christians will be free of these traditions and may be simpler, clearer, and more effective.
- They can serve as an example and an encouragement to Christians who remain in churches to identify the rules and traditions that hinder God’s work in the world at this time, inspiring Christians to throw them out and to focus on loving God.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)